Review: Swing State at Goodman Theatre Focuses on Environmental Disaster and the Lives of Our Wisconsin Neighbors

Swing State is playwright Rebecca Gilman’s latest effort in asking us to understand the lives of 20 percent of the US population—those who do not live in major metropolitan areas. Even though their numbers may be smaller than those of city dwellers, these voters can often make a difference in a state or national election. Bur Swing State, now playing at Goodman Theatre, is not directly about partisan politics. But it is about environmental disaster and, subtly, how it’s viewed by some swing state residents. Robert Falls, Gilman’s frequent collaborator, directs the production. Falls’ direction clicks with Gilman’s script as he establishes the pace and timing of the story and its four characters.

Set in the fictional Cardiff Township in Wisconsin, Swing State is about personal relationships—in particular about the one between Peg (Mary Beth Fisher) and Ryan (Bubba Weiler), her former student and all-around helper. Peg lives in an old farmhouse, part of the property she and her late husband, a wildlife biologist, bought so they could protect 40 acres in the driftless area of Wisconsin—an area never covered by glaciers and thus rich with flora and fauna. (The driftless area is a region that takes in the four corner sections of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.)

Peg’s property includes this prairie and she’s determined to keep it from being plowed under by farmers. She keeps a list of creatures that are gone—like bats that died from the white-nose fungus, and chorus frogs, whip-poor-wills and nighthawks. Those birds used to eat insects and most of the insects are gone (thank you, insecticide), so it’s an insect apocalypse, Peg says.

Anne E. Thompson as Dani, Kirsten Fitzgerald as the sheriff and Fisher as Peg. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Ryan has been close to Peg’s family since he was a child. Her husband Jim taught him to hunt (with Jim’s old Winchester rifle) and he’s helping Peg preserve her prairie and does chores for her. The other figures in these small-town relationships are Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her new deputy Dani (Anne E. Thompson). (Kris’ family owns thousands of acres of farmland around the driftless area and they’re eager to buy Peg’s prairie.)

Ryan has two strikes against him: he’s been in prison, and he had a drinking problem, which he seems to have addressed; he’s working hard at being a responsible citizen. But the sheriff only sees him as an ex-con, so naturally he’s the first suspect when that Winchester and a box of Jim’s antique tools disappear from Peg’s garage.

Fisher and Weiler as Peg and Ryan establish a realistic chemistry that forms the bedrock of the play. However, the motivation behind some of Ryan’s actions isn’t clear. Gilman’s skill at writing dialogue tells us her characters’ stories in a naturalistic way.

Peg is in a state of depression about her husband’s recent death and takes a straightforward view of her own mortality. She’s concerned about helping Ryan and committed to preserving the prairie after her death; early in the play, she has a conversation with Ryan about her plans—which involve him. She firmly believes that “there’s zero chance you can save what you love in the world if you stop trying.”

Kirsten Fitzgerald as Sheriff Kris. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Peg’s homey kitchen/family room set is authentically designed by Todd Rosenthal, with lighting by Eric Southern and original music and sound design by Richard Woodbury.

Swing State is Gilman’s 10th play with the Goodman, many of them directed by Falls. Some of the most memorable ones for me have been Spinning Into Butter, Boy Gets Girl, Blue Surge, Dollhouse and Twilight Bowl.

Swing State continues at Goodman Theatre, 170 N .Dearborn St., through November 13. Running time is ahout 110 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $15-45.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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